In Minnesota, the Governor’s executive order Stay-At-Home will begin March 27 at 11:59 pm with the goal of slowing the spread of COVID-19. Many Minnesotans are happy this step has been taken. Others are concerned. Join me as I explore two hypothetical situations of Stay-At-Home in action, and the possible implications of each situation. First, let’s meet Jill.
Jill is proud to be declared an essential worker. As an employee of the liquor store, her job is seen as necessary. Some of the other employees are taking leave right now, so she’s busier than usual at work. She agrees with the Stay-At-Home mandate and is proud to be a Minnesotan. She’s doing her part to protect others. She promises herself she will stay within the new mandate and do her best for her community.
Because she is an essential worker, daycare is provided for her son. After work, on the way home to pick him up, she needs to run a few errands. Jill cashes her check at the bank. Good thing banks are essential, or she might not have the means to buy groceries! Since Jill has been so busy with the increase in hours she is working that she hasn’t menu-planned like she usually does. She can’t remember what she has in stock at home, so she stops by the grocery store to pick up dinner for that night, and see if there’s any toilet paper. She almost stopped to make small-talk with someone, but stopped in time, remembering her commitment to social distancing. Jill picks up her son at daycare and they head home, rather than to the movies or to the children’s museum. She is following the directive, and proud of it!
When they get home, she puts away the groceries and notices her fridge actually does have a lot of food. She and her son bake some brownies and take them over to the apartment next door, spreading a little cheer, and definitely keeping social distance rules as they pass the plate of goodies to their neighbor. They hunker down, watch a movie, and head to bed. See, this isn’t so hard! What are people complaining about?
As they are getting ready in the morning, Jill notices that while they have tons of food in the fridge, they are running low on milk, and her son loves his cereal! Even though they have plenty of food, they would be uncomfortable eating canned soup or frozen dinners for breakfast, so she makes a mental note to stop by the grocery store again on the way home, of course with her hand sanitizer!
On the way out to the car, she grabs the mail, shuffles through it, and notices the bills, sticking them in her purse. Daycare drop-off complete, she heads to work, grateful to be helping people relax and cope during this stressful time! Between customers, Jill chats with her co-workers, passing them funny memes to look at on her phone, keeping social distance, of course. Her work day ends, and she drives to the county office, makes out her utility check, and drops it off. She heads to the post-office next to mail her payments, grateful that these essential businesses are still open! Oh, and don’t forget another trip to the store for milk.
After her son is in bed that night, Jill hops on social media. She updates that she is proud to be following all of the rules, she’s proud of all of the essential workers like herself on the front lines, she wishes everyone would just stay home, and that we should all keep doing the next right thing!
Jill is an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19, but doesn’t know it. Between the customer’s credit cards she handled, the phone she passed to her co-workers, the paper plate she handed to her neighbor, the letters she mailed, the bankers she passed the virus to on the pen she used, the carts and products and check-out lane she touched when shopping, the purse she set down at businesses, the children infected by her son at daycare, she spread the virus to 53 people over the course of time she was contagious with no symptoms. And those people could spread it to others. Even people who are essential can spread this virus. Some would argue that this is exactly why it is vitally important that everyone else who is not essential hunker down and stay home!
However, even if all “non-essential” people follow the Stay-At-Home law perfectly, we could all still be like Jill. Rules don’t guarantee the spread will stop. And in fact, it is possible that the new rules might possibly bring more harm than good. How so? How could the new laws possibly cause any harm at all when we desperately need to stop COVID-19? Let’s check in with Jack.
Jack is an old friend of Jill’s, since their nursery-school days. They are Facebook friends, and he sees her post praising the essential work force, urging everybody else to stay home, and encouraging others to do the next right thing. He is cut to the heart.
Jack is socially aware and compassionate. He definitely wants to protect others and knows he might be a carrier of a virus. He’s concerned that if he goes out, he could really harm someone. Besides, he’s non-essential anyway.
Jack is drifting these days. He’s a brilliant, extroverted guy, but not quite sure where he belongs. He’s a grad student in a biomedical engineering program, that just switched over to online classes. So far, that’s going fine. But, his livelihood was through a lab research program that is currently on-hold. He’s not just disappointed, he’s also broke. He realizes that he may need to move out of his on-campus housing, and back home into a bad situation. Since he can’t go to his advisor’s office, he’d really like to call and ask if there are any other housing options, but doesn’t want to be a bother. Jack knows how busy everyone is these days, especially moving classes entirely online.
As he considers his lack of paycheck and his possibly dangerous living situation back home, he realizes how depressed and anxious he feels. He often turns to his faith at times like these. He yearns to walk to the chapel at the church he used to regularly attend, that was always open for prayer. Of course, he could just sit in his apartment and pray, but it isn’t the same as sitting at the feet of the altar and pouring out his heart. But, he realizes, his presence there is currently illegal under the Stay-At-Home order, even if no one else is there, and even if no one else comes later. It’s really tough. But he gets it. It is for the safety of others.
Trying to keep his mind off of his troubles, Jack starts sketching. He has a really neat idea for a viral treatment that might actually work! It could help so many people! It’s right up his alley as far as his education is concerned. But the sketch is missing a few things, and he’s not sure how to put all of the pieces together. If only he could get in the lab, he’s certain he could solve the problem. He continues to brainstorm.
Meanwhile, his anxiety is rising. He needs to remember to take his medication. Doesn’t he need a refill soon? He calls the pharmacy and gets a computerized voice on the other end of the line, telling him they were experiencing a longer than average wait time and he would need to be on hold. Not surprising. A couple days back, he had gotten an email from the pharmacy that there were some delays in refills because of the change in supply. His refill might not be ready as requested.
It had been awhile since he’d done talk therapy with his counselor. That would really, really help. He thinks it is probably legal to set-up and go to an appointment. But, he knows a lot about immunology: if he was carrying the virus, he might infect his counselor, and through the counselor, he might infect many others. It wasn’t worth the risk. Besides, everybody was busy taking care of the really sick, struggling people. Not only would be likely be on hold for hours while folks switch over to home-office reception, he’d probably be taking a spot from a person who needed it more than he did. He was just a little anxious.
He remembers that last year, while perusing the biomedical engineering books in the library, there was one that might help him answer the missing piece for the viral treatment! He couldn’t remember the precise information and formula he might need, but he was pretty sure that if he could find that book, it would be in there! What was its title? He grabs his jacket and runs over to the library to see if he can find it. This might be the missing piece!
He is so excited that he runs over to the library, but something is different. It is dark, and then, as he pulls the door handle, he realizes it is locked. Oh no! Of course, the library is closed, too, as a non-essential business! But, he just touched that door handle without sanitizing his hand. What if someone else came to that door and touched it next? He could spread the virus to them! Maybe he should run back to his apartment and get some hand sanitizer and bring it back over, and wipe down the door handle?
He is too tired to run, and too disappointed: in himself that he had forgotten to protect others by leaving home and touching public places, and disappointed in the library that he couldn’t access the book he needed for a breakthrough in his work. He remembers again about taking his medication. He needs to do that when he gets home. And eat. When had he last eaten?
He walks in the door and heads to the fridge. He tries to eat really healthy food, because he knows when he does, it really helps his mental health. As he stares into the fridge, though, there isn’t that much there. It makes him nervous. He doesn’t have a paycheck coming in. And even if he did, should he go to the store? The Stay-At-Home order allows him to go out for essentials, but which food is truly essential? He does have bits and pieces to eat. He grabs the withered carrots, and decides to rummage in the cupboard for a package of Ramen that might be in there. Wait. He should wash his hands before touching the food. He turns on the hot water, pumps some soap onto his hands and scrubs for a full 20 seconds. And 10 seconds more for good measure.
He really needs to get groceries. Or maybe not. He thinks he could make do, at least for awhile. What about the campus food bank? No. He wouldn’t want to risk hurting someone by going out if he is an asymptomatic carrier, even if it was legal. That would be unloving.
Jack is tired, emotionally and physically. He thinks maybe he could call his pastor for spiritual encouragement, and also see if the pastor might pick up his medication refill for him from the pharmacy across town when it is finally ready. But then, he isn’t absolutely sure whether this might get his pastor in trouble. Would someone see his pastor and call the authorities? Jack doesn’t want to risk his pastor going to prison for his sake, even though he thinks it is probably legal for his pastor to go out. Even so, he remembers there is a website he can submit a question of clarification for what is legal or not. That seems a little daunting to figure out, though, and seems like it would probably take days to get a reply. He needed help now. At the same time, he didn’t want to bother his pastor, though his pastor had invited him to do so. After all, his pastor was busy getting everything ready for online services that would benefit the whole congregation, not just him personally.
Jack really looked forward to his mental health support group that met weekly. But it had been voluntarily canceled the last few weeks, and now, with Stay-At-Home, he is certain it will not meet in person. He is hurting for interaction with others, though he knows that even if they did meet, he could not join them out of fear of infecting someone. Chatting with them online is not the same; not all of the participants even have internet access. In fact, Jack notices that the more time he spends online, which was increasing considerably with his grad classes now completely online, the more irritable and nervous he becomes. Technology is a two-edged sword. It promises to connect people socially, but it strips them of real, deep physical relationships.
Jack is overwhelmed: He is on the brink of an amazing discovery to help others in the midst of this viral crisis, but seems blocked on every side due to the new legal framework. He yearns for connection with others, but the internet leaves him empty. He is without a paycheck and groceries, but doesn’t want to risk infecting others by using legal resources. He isn’t sure where he can live safely. He has spiritual and mental health needs, but figures someone else’s are more important. He knows his duty: stay at home and protect everyone. Even if he gets sick, he will not risk someone else’s life by seeking medical attention. He feels guilt on all sides, weighing on him deeply. He sees no way out of the dark and gloomy mess that surrounds him. He feels hopeless.
Jack did not have COVID-19, and he therefore he could not have spread a virus to others that he himself did not carry. All of his anxiety about spreading it was for naught. Had his small class remained in person, his teacher and he would have stayed behind after class and chatted a bit longer, and together, they would have put together the pieces necessary for a viral treatment. Had the library been open, Jack would have looked up the formula he needed. If his lab had been available, he could have done the experiments necessary for treating others, and he would have had a paycheck, therefore negating his worries about his living situation. He would have had money for nutritious food to fuel his mind and his body. He could have kept his regular appointments with his counselor and had access to his medication. He would have been in a good mental state with the support of in-person friends, whom he couldn’t have infected because he wasn’t a carrier. It is at least conceivable that hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved from COVID-19 had the Stay-At-Home law not been in place.
While I encourage everyone to follow the laws in place, I also encourage everyone to think critically about the law’s impact, as well as examining the message of their words on social media. “Stay-at-home” to you might have different implications to someone else, regardless of the wording of the law. Is there only one good way to protect others? Might there not be multiple good options, even multiple good options that can work together in harmony? This is not a simple, black-and-white issue. There are a diversity of ways we can serve one another and help our neighbors, and some things we might be doing in the name of love might in reality actually be harmful. Stay-At-Home might be one way to show love to our neighbors, but please don’t stop dreaming up other ways to show love, and please don’t judge those who come to different, possibly also life-saving, conclusions. In order to protect the vulnerable, Minnesotans don't have freedom of assembly or freedom of religious expression right now, but we do still have freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Don't be afraid to exercise them.
Mrs. Marie K. MacPherson, vice president of Into Your Hands LLC, lives in Casper, Wyoming, with her husband Ryan and their children, whom she homeschools. She is a certified Classical Lutheran Educator (Consortium for Classical Lutheran Educators), author of Meditations on the Vocation of Motherhood (Old Testament vol., 2018; New Testament vol., 2023), and editor of Mothering Many: Sanity-Saving Strategies from Moms of Four or More (2016).